Suck It Up Foodies, Wal-Mart Is In the House

Walmart announced last week that they were implementing new initiatives that would double the sale of fresh produce from local farms by 2015. For their purposes, Walmart defines “local” as being within the same state. There are also initiatives with regards to sustainability and supporting small farmers in India, China and Japan.

Full press release here.

You might think that this is a good thing. That Walmart is dedicated to being a positive influence on people’s eating habits and in supporting local farmers. Yet many people are eyeing it as a PR ploy, suggesting that Walmart has no intention of living up to its stated commitment, or that this policy may not actually be beneficial to local farmers, as Walmart has enough buying power to set the prices that they pay to producers, not the other way around.

Walmart has made huge efforts in the past few years to get on board the ethical food train. They are the largest retailer of organic produce in the US. In 2007, they pushed shrimp producers to become certified with the Marine Stewardship Council to farm shrimp sustainably. They created a sustainability index that will apply to every manufacturer of goods sold in Walmart stores, which will force manufacturers to be more eco-friendly in every step of the process, including final disposal of goods and packaging.

But we still love to hate them. We still assume that they’re only doing it for the profit. And maybe they are. That’s what stores do. And you’ve only got to show up at an event like Toronto’s Green Living Show to realize that there are plenty of people making money selling environmentally-friendly, sustainable, local products. Why is it okay for them, but not Walmart?

Sure, Walmart has many policies still in place that are reprehensible. They bust workers’ unions, they continue to gut downtown areas by luring people to sprawling stores in the suburbs. They sell garments made in the worst sweatshops.

But should we continue to bust their balls for that and ignore efforts that are for the greater good? Or should we look upon these moves as a progressive step when it comes to really and truly giving everyone access to nutritious, sustainably-grown, local food? Or… shall we sit in a corner and wring our hands and whinge about how buying local food only counts if you buy it directly from the farrrrrmmerrrrrr?

As Kristen Ridley of points out:

Let’s be honest: Walmart isn’t going anywhere, and the people who shop there are not the type who are going to go out of their way to shop ethically.

Ignoring the elitist tone of that comment, Ridley does have a point. People who can’t afford to buy local produce directly from the farmer at a farmer’s market have been shut out of the local, sustainable movement. And let’s not get all pretentiously Michael Pollan-ish about how people need to accept that they have to pay eight bucks for eggs. Some people just can’t afford it. Point blank.

We may not like that Walmart has joined the local food game. But a lot of people are going to be better off for it. And whether you shop at Walmart or not, if the goal is truly to give people access to local produce and improve health and nutrition, we’re going to have to suck it up and accept that Walmart can do it better than any farmers’ market can.